The Mission and Vision of the Liberal Church in History

A little historical essay about mission and organization in liberal religion: 

For most of its history, the mission of the liberal church was dogmatic and apologeticRead through Channing's arguments with Calvinism; they are designed to educate and persuade. Religious liberalism had some very specific positions on the great theological questions of Christendom. Those questions were important to the people in surrounding communities. The mission of the church was to engage those questions and promote the liberal positions among the members of the community. The method of fulfilling the mission was the weekly worship service, which was primarily an adult educational program. The minister explained the liberal position on the most important questions of life (the theological questions) through the sermon; it was both teaching and preaching.

The authority of the minister was based on his knowledge about theology, church history and biblical interpretation. The minister was the religious educator in the congregation, and he taught the faith. This is why the early Unitarian and Universalist sermons seem so boring and useless to us today. I was thrilled to find a copy of a book of sermons left by Aaron Bancroft, the first minister in Worcester. I was disappointed to find in it a deadly dull series of sermons on his take on the traditional theological questions — not an inspiring word anywhere. In Bancroft's time, they were challenging and exciting, questioning the conventional wisdom of the day. The were dogmatic and apologetic, in the best sense of those words. 

This understanding of the church and the teaching/preaching role of the minister prevailed up to the very recent past. In the liberal church, it had two different forms:

  • In the East and in New England, liberal preachers reinterpreted the Christian tradition for their congregants, constructing new and unorthodox understandings of Christian systematics. One significant reinterpretation of Christian systematics was the Christian Social Gospel. 
  • In the rest of the country, liberal preachers questioned the truth of Christian systematics and constructed a humanist theological tradition.  Humanist preaching was teaching/preaching will still instructional and persuasive. 
What unites these forms was their common purpose in educating the community. Both assumed that the minister was knowledgable and informed about liberal theology and had the role of persuading people to take that point of view.

I want to contrast two possible understandings of mission: one is to disseminate a point of view in the community and the other is to create a congregation of people who share a particular point of view. Of course, neither excludes the other.

In Worcester Massachusetts, the founders of the church said that their goal was "to hear liberal preaching." They formed a church to create a platform, a pulpit, to promote liberal religion. It is interesting that creating, and supporting, the pulpit was much more on their mind than creating a congregation. The church was the joint enterprise of the pew owners, who were the owners. They did not create a general membership list of the congregation, nor write by-laws, nor conduct a joint pledge campaign until more than a century later. 

In the contemporary UUA, the idea that the liberal church was primarily an educational institution teaching liberal religion to the community through the preaching of the minister fell out of favor. The focus of the liberal church shifted to the gathering and sustaining the congregation.

The liberal religious institution morphed into something new: a liberal spiritual co-op, a self-sustaining, self-governing, and self-serving enclave. Its way of being together, its internal functioning, is its message. Its process was its content. It harkened back more to the utopian communities of the 19th century than to the teaching/preaching church. This conception of the church is so dominant now in liberal religious circles as to be unseeable.

We framed the mission of liberal religion as the creation of congregations, an organizational form, rather than the dissemination of liberal religious ideas, values and practices.

Some of the results: insularity, a lack of focus in our educational programs for adults, reduction of social and public ministry as secondary concerns of the congregation, the missing "there there", the intractable financial crisis of congregations, circularity in mission definition, and ultimately, I think, slow growth and stagnation.


  1. Huzzah, bravo! A point well made and which desperately needs to be made. Your only omission was the failure to include among the results of this shift, the progressive incoherence of liberal theology and the indifference of the Association at large to supporting attempts to make it more coherent. In former ages, theology mattered, and it filed churches. Sermons were printed on the front page of daily newspapers in great American cities.

  2. Jeanette Ruyle9:32 AM

    Fascinating! I wonder-- it seems there has been an emphasis on congregations since the beginning of an Association, AUA then UUA. An association of congregations. This kind of structure would seem to lead to a self-perpetuating need for member congregations.
    Now there is "beyond congregation" thinking (maybe a movement?). I wonder if this is a return to what you identify as a mission of disseminating a point of view in the community. With a difference though-- it is no longer ordained-minister-centric.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Complicating the Great Reformation: Dialectical Theology (Part 11 of many)

The 8th Principle

the difference between "principles' and "virtues"

Denise Levertov's Poem about Thomas

The Great Reformation (Dialectical Theology, Part 10 of many)